Sunday, July 5, 2015

British Eccentrics of the Old Guard

I've been reading a book about the British codebreaking operation at Bletchley Park during World War II. The greatest contributions to that effort were made by young men who were mainly mathematicians. But their bosses were men who had been breaking codes since World War I, and their background was mainly in classics and linguistics. Among them were some of the war's great eccentrics:
The eccentric, anarchic wartime boffin has become a British archetype, and the Bletchley Park story is where it finds its highest expression. We hear it in Mavis Batey's affectionate account of her mentor, the veteran codebreaker Alfred Dillwyn Knox; when deep in thought he would occasionally try to refill his pipe with sandwiches. He was also, apparently, incapable of finding the right door out of the room on the first go, heading at full tilt into store cupboards.

Dilly Knox was a Cambridge classicist who had smashed codes during the Great War in Whitehall's Room 40; very often inspiration would come in a bath that he had found in an office at the end of a corridor. He thought best in hot water. On one occasion, worried colleagues had to force open the door to check that he hadn't drowned. He was engrossed in calculations. . . .

Knox was 55 years old at the outbreak of World War II and from the start of Bletchley's work there was a sense that his rigorous, time-consuming methods were being superseded by developing technology. Nevertheless he was a force to be reckoned with, on and off duty. He was a terrifying driver, especially along country lanes; he was given to reciting Milton, and gesticulating along with the verse, his hands off the steering wheel. . . .

Knox was matched in eccentricity by another codebreaking veteran, Joshua Cooper, a large good-humored Oxford classicist and linguist (an expert in Russian) known to some as 'the bear', who would inadvertently frighten new young recruits by suddenly shouting apparently random phrases, such as 'Yes, that's it!' But Cooper's aide, Ann Cunningham, felt moved to proclaim in later years that incidents such as the time when he threw a coffee cup into the lake because he could not think what to do with it were isolated. . . . His occasional outbreaks of falling under desks, or re-starting conversations with people weeks later at exactly the point that they had left off, helped to camouflage that intense seriousness with which he took his work.
These are from Sinclair McKay, The Lost World of Bletchley Park (2013).

No comments: